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Broadway Reviews

The Last Ship

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 26, 2014

The Last Ship Music and lyrics by Sting. Book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey. Directed by Joe Mantello. Choreography by Steven Hoggett. Music Direction, orchestrations and arrangements by Rob Mathes. Scenic & costume design by David Zinn. Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Cast: Michael Esper, Rachel Tucker, Jimmy Nail, Aaron Lazar, Sally Ann Triplett, Collin Kelly-Sordelet, and Fred Applegate, Eric Anderson, Ethan Applegate, Carig Bennett, Dawn Cantwell, Jeremy Davis, Bradley Dean, Alyssa DiPalm, Colby Foytik, David Michael Garry, Timothy Gulan, Shawna M. Hamic, Rich Hebert, Leah Hocking, Todd A. Horman, Sarah Hunt, Jamie Jackson, Sean Jenness, Drew McVety, Johnny Newcomb, Matthew Stocke, Cullen R. Titmas, Jeremy Woodard.
Theatre: Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission
Schedule: Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday at 2pm and 8pm, Thursday at 7pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm, Sunday at 3pm
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Michael Esper and Rachel Tucker.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Pop stars' unchecked egos rarely go down smoothly when wrapped in musical theatre; what makes one a compelling recording or concert artist does not automatically transfer to the stage with any sense of common sense, let alone drama, attached. But if it too often seems that such writers' only goal is to force Broadway to bend to their will—however inappropriate the outcome may be—it's clear that with The Last Ship, which just opened at the Neil Simon, Sting has happily bent his will to Broadway's.

The result is the most engaging and certainly the most moving musical Broadway has seen in—well, quite a while. Sting, collaborating with a trio of creatives who are all doing some of their best work in their fields to date—bookwriters John Logan (Red) and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal, If/Then), and director Joe Mantello (Wicked). And perhaps the most stunning aspect of the show they've produced is that, while maintaining a fairly consistent high level of quality, they have done so while writing about nothing more than ordinary people faced with ordinary problems.

To be fair, “nothing more” may be a bit misleading, as The Last Ship actually has huge things on its mind despite weaving a story that, on the surface, is small enough to be below notice. The plight of a couple dozen shipwrights in Wallsend in northeastern England, who all lost their positions when the shipyards were bought and don't want to take replacements that pay a lot less money, is not the kind of thing that immediately seems to sing. In fact, it all but threatens not to.

But factor in a man named Gideon Fletcher (Michael Esper), who returns to Wallsend to pay final tribute to the authoritarian scholar he escaped by boat 15 years earlier; Meg Dawson (Rachel Tucker), the girl he left behind bearing promises he ended up not keeping; Arthur Millburn (Aaron Lazar), the one time laborer whose management job now puts him at odds with his former friends and whose relationship with Meg puts him at odds with Gideon; and Father O'Brien (Fred Applegate), the dying priest and town patriarch who conceives the idea of all the unemployed men building one final vessel (using money he, ahem, pilfered from Church funds) to give their lives a late salvo of meaning, and you are, in fact, facing a richly textured, and incredibly lyrical, work.

Questions of just what responsibility parents have for shaping their children's lives, and when those children should listen, arise time and time again. Gideon and Meg must confront myriad past mistakes as they ponder a potential new future. How deep love runs—and when it's a less eternal kind of affection—vexes almost everyone. Father O'Brien must balance in-the-moment pleasures and flawless-hindsight regret continuously. Has Arthur “sold out” or done the right thing for everyone, and can or should he make amends? And is this goodbye project the best idea the men have ever had, and a sure route to rekindling their foundering sense of purpose, or a tragedy in the making?

Fred Applegate, Jimmy Nail, Sally Ann Triplett, and the cast.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

As the plot unfolded, I not only found myself caring for each of these issues and others, but also caring deeply for the finely crafted characters—who also include Jackie White (Jimmy Nail) as a senior dockworker and his smart-tongued bartending wife Peggy (Sally Ann Triplett), and Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), a young man caught between two fathers—and unable to predict much of what would happen, or under what circumstances. Logan and Yorkey don't always avoid cliché—the sin-drenched clergyman and the buxom, bitchy tavern owner (Shawna M. Hamic, good) are two tropes I didn't need to see again—but they succeed much more often than they fail.

The same is true of Sting, who slides effortlessly into the musical theatre idiom. His opening number, “Island of Souls,” provides a haunting montage of the background action that sets up the story, and establishes the dark, oddly hopeful, tortured–sea chantey score to come. Sting writes palpably effective character numbers, whether choked with lost opportunity for Gideon; pounding with frustration for the working men (the raging but wistful “Shipyard,” the hard-driving title song, the desperate “We Got Now't Else”); slithering with sly sexuality for Meg one moment (“If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor”) and awash in desolate romanticism later (“It's Not the Same Moon”); a cleverly gentle dad-kid moment about fighting at the top of Act II; or even “Show Some Respect,” a spine-tingling spin on an Irish wake that's joyous enough to inspire the dead to get up and dance.

So outstanding is so much of what's here that it's a shame to have to report a handful of notable missteps. The middle of the first act is highly flabby, with critical scenes taking too long to develop and much of Sting's underscoring sapping his otherwise on-target songs of momentum just when they need it most. (Rob Mathes's evocative but leaden orchestrations rarely help.) The set (David Zinn, who also designed the nice, simple costumes) has moments of shadowy beauty, particularly in the opening and closing scenes, but often suggests a cavernous world not as close-knit as we're supposed to believe this one is; and Christopher Akerlind's lights look lazily set too low for practically every scene. And much of Steven Hoggett's choreography is unremarkable, by and large a warmed-over retread of his bar stomping moves for Once.

Mantello's staging, however, is his best to date for a Broadway musical, at once taut and lively, expectant and guarded, just like the lives it documents. And the performances are, to a person, superb. Esper is sensational as Gideon, playing every minute of the 15 years of agony the man inflicted on Meg and himself, but doing so with a remarkable energy and a compelling, if less than world-class, singing voice. (The songs all fall perfectly in his range, something that's not always true for actors of Esper's caliber when cast as musical leads.) Smoke, steam, and tears emerge in equal measure from Tucker, who expertly presents the contradictory feelings that drive Meg.

Nail and Applegate are both excellent as the serious and comic moral centers of the community, Lazar finds every ounce of conflicted affection in Arthur, and Triplett's a firebrand as the strong-willed Peggy. Kelly-Sordelet makes an auspicious Broadway debut as Tom: witty and kinetic, but showing how even a man this young has already learned to always hold something back.

Don't expect too much of that attitude from The Last Ship. If it falls short of matching the rigorous polish of classics like Carousel or My Fair Lady, Sting and company hold that as their standard, and deliver a show with a heart as pure and unapologetic as that of the best Golden Age titles while avoiding the sentimentality or plasticky fakeness that so often accompanies soulless imitation. And escaping its spell is not easy: Don't be surprised if, as you experience the epic quest of the real people pushing through pain to find real redemption, you find yourself willing to follow them straight to the open sea—or just about anywhere else.

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